By Letitia Stein
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court overturned a new state death penalty law on Friday because it does not require juries to unanimously recommend capital punishment in a set of rulings with implications for ongoing prosecutions and 385 death row inmates.
Executions in Florida, home to the nation's second-largest death row, have been on hold since the U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down the state's death penalty sentencing laws.
The high court's 8-1 ruling invalidated the process by which a judge sentenced Timothy Hurst to death for the 1998 murder of a fried-chicken restaurant manager. It found that Florida had given judges powers that juries should wield in determining eligibility for execution.
In response, the Florida legislature this spring rewrote the state's death sentencing laws, requiring at least 10 of 12 jurors to support capital punishment, instead of a simple majority.
But that law "is unconstitutional because it requires that only ten jurors recommend death as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, twelve-member jury," the state's high court found, adding that the law could not be applied to pending prosecutions.
"It's big," said Marty McClain, a prominent Florida death penalty attorney involved in one of the cases. "There is no constitutional death penalty statute in place until it’s fixed."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is reviewing the ruling, "but in the meantime Florida juries must make unanimous decisions in capital cases as to the appropriateness of the death penalty," a spokesman, Whitney Ray, said in an email.
Her office did not immediately clarify whether current prosecutions can proceed.
Among U.S. states, only Alabama and Delaware similarly allowed for non-unanimous jury decisions at the time of the high court's ruling. Delaware's top court in August struck down the state's death penalty statute, and the U.S. Supreme Court has directed Alabama to review its practices.
"This is significant going forward, because a quarter of all the death sentences imposed nationwide were in Florida and Alabama and almost 90 percent of the recent death sentences in those two states were the product of non-unanimous jury verdicts," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
In a related ruling on Friday, the Florida Supreme Court vacated Hurst's death sentence and sent his case back to a lower court for a new penalty phase hearing.
The court, however, stopped short of commuting his sentence to life as some advocates had urged.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum)